Arts Studies Professor Wins Filmmaking Award

September 9, 2010
By Cherry Crayton

Congratulations to Rodney Waschka, a professor of arts studies at NC State! He co-produced and composed the music for the short film Horizon, which won first place in the computer animation category in the Stella Artois St. Louis Filmmakers Showcase in July and first place in the experimental category at the Sunscreen Film Festival in April. Watch the short film in the video above, and thanks to the Bulletin, NC State’s faculty/staff newspaper, for alerting us to the news.

In NC State magazine’s Winter 2006 issue, we wrote about Waschka. At the time, he described his composing process this way: “I pretty much do everything a computer programmer does.” Read more about him and his composing process after the jump.

The following story originally appeared in the Winter 2006 issue of NC State magazine, a benefit of membership in the Alumni Association.

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Music That’s Algorithmic

Composing looks a lot like computer programming for Rodney Waschka.

Rodney Waschka has written more than 40 pieces of classical music. They’ve been featured on 10 CDs and played live in more than two dozen countries. Critics have called his work “astonishing” and “profound.”
But if you catch him composing, you’ll find him with a laptop, not a musical instrument or notepad, the tools of most composers. He’s a professor of arts studies, but he describes his work this way: “I pretty much do everything a computer programmer does.”

That’s because he creates music with algorithms, or numeric patterns, that instruct a computer to pick out notes for a score. Though composers have used algorithmic models such as probabilities and fractals to create music, Waschka was the first to write an opera—Saint Ambrose, a 2001 work about journalist Ambrose Bierce—using evolutionary algorithms, which model natural selection. Such foresight led Larry Austin, co-founder of the avant-garde music publication SOURCE, to call Waschka one of computer music’s most important composers.

“Rodney . . . produce[s] beautiful music,” says Austin, former president of the International Computer Music Association. “They are . . . highly original creations.”

You’ve probably heard music produced with the aid of a computer. Most pop songs contain sounds traditional instruments don’t make. And computers often create, manipulate or enhance the sound effects in movies. It’s a technique called digital synthesis, and its product is probably how most think of computer music.

Waschka uses digital synthesis in some pieces. But most of his compositions are played by musicians who use instruments such as harps, pianos and saxophones. That’s why it’s important, he says, to know what a piece will sound like once it’s written in music notation. “[W]hat’s a little different for me is that I predict what kind of output a [computer] program is going to give me,” he says. “I knew when I started in the genre, it was in its infancy.”
A Memphis, Tenn., native with a doctorate in music from the University of North Texas, he joined the NC State faculty in 1990. He learned about evolutionary algorithms at a computer music festival in the mid-1990s. “It was a tool I thought I could do something with,” says Waschka, who directs the biennial N.C. Computer Music Festival. “I was unsuccessful at first. It’s a complicated technique.”

Today, he describes the technique without pause. He starts with an initial population, usually measures of music from compositions he’s written or from borrowed music. He converts the musical notations into numeric patterns into a computer. Then, he writes and runs a fitness function, which controls for variables such as rhythm and meter. Within two seconds, the computer eliminates measures of music from the population that don’t satisfy the requirements.

Those that do are allowed to pass through and are randomly paired. They “breed,” or blend, to create a new generation of measures of music. He runs another fitness function; he gets another generation. The process continues—maybe 10 times, maybe 1,000 times—until he’s left with a handful of musical scores. He can select one of the scores, or he can take elements from each to create his final piece.

His method saves time. Unlike traditional composers who pick each note and think about what each instrument will do at what point in the piece, the computer frees him “from those moment to moment decisions,” he says. This lets him write large parts of a piece in one draft.

It also frees him for other projects. In addition to writing lyrics and spoken words for compositions such as Saint Ambrose and Sappho’s Breath, an opera about Greek poet Sappho, he writes poetry—with a computer. For “Private Eye Memories,” he entered dialogue from works by two crime novelists into a computer program that helped him rearrange the dialogue and write a poem Broken Pencil literary magazine called “something close to brilliant.” He’s also working with a former student to turn his musical pieces into films.

However listeners discover his music, he hopes they find it interesting. “I’m trying to make something beautiful and useful,” says Waschka, who’s composing an opera about 19th century Japanese woodblock artist Hiroshige II. “That’s a really tough job, so I use any tool I think will help me. All the complicated stuff I go through, it’s not necessary that that be interesting to the audience. What is important is that the piece is of interest to the audience.”

Cherry Crayton ’01, ’03 med

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